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Empty Football Grounds

Ian Grant yearned for the return of football.


There’s always something eerie and magical about an empty football ground, but never more so than on the morning of a matchday. Preferably a bright winter’s morning, silver frost on the ground, rising mist in the air, crisp sunshine in the offing. The first comings and goings, gates being unlocked, greetings being exchanged. Sounds breaking the silence, but not yet shattering the peace.

Early on a Saturday, taking our son to his dance classes, I drive past the Pilot Field, tucked unobtrusively into a leafy nook on one of Hastings’ many steep hills. The romance of the place doesn’t really survive close inspection, and certainly not a trip to the toilets, but it’ll nevertheless be a sad day when it’s no longer home to Hastings United. It always does my heart good to see the gates swung open, even at that early hour, and to feel the first stirrings of activity in preparation for a game.

Perhaps football grounds have their own matchday rituals, as comforting as the favourite scarves we wear or the pre-match haunts we frequent. Paths worn deep through habit and circumstance. The same people doing the same jobs, game after game, season after season, until they’re absorbed into the very fabric of the place. We accept that churches have their own distinct breath, after all: a relationship with ritual which is so intertwined that it’s almost impossible to tell where the building ends and the ceremony begins. Perhaps football grounds have a life beyond that we bring when we pass through those gates. Perhaps we’re part of their ceremony.

And perhaps we don’t appreciate it enough. You may be old enough to remember the days when Cup Final coverage began in the morning and ran for hours. We’ve tended to write that off, to blame the television companies for selling us short, but there’s no reason why every football match can’t be like that, when you think about it. We allow away games to occupy a whole day; we only treat home games differently because we fill our time and our heads with other things. You don’t need a helicopter following the team coach. You just need the patience to watch it all unfold, and to invest in the sense of occasion with a child’s imagination, and to feel that gently simmering anticipation. It’s yours if you want it, as special as you make it. It’s all there.

Except it isn’t.

Silence. The occasional clatter of pigeons taking off. Round here, at this time of year, the immodest kerfuffle of randy seagulls. Perhaps the hum of a mower, the hiss of a sprinkler; the bare bones of those rituals. Otherwise, silence.

As with the rest of life, there’s a strange familiarity, even a mundanity. It must be like this during the week, presumably, between matches. Even more so over the summer months. And yet lockdown deepens the silence, just as it deepens loneliness, sadness, boredom, anxiety, depression. You stop being able to see where the bottom is, have to keep reminding yourself that it’s still there.

For all that I crave the head-spinning rush of a last-minute winner, my imagination takes me most often to the first five minutes of a game. Not an especially important game, not one I’ve been thinking about all week. Just another game, part of the ticking momentum of the fixture list. Trying to find the rhythm of the contest while sipping a cup of tea. The first shared observations with those nearby. The first glimpses of an unfamiliar player, maybe. The initial cut and thrust, jab and parry. Someone grumbling at a short corner routine. Get it in the effing box! Another sip of tea. Ninety minutes ahead. Anything might happen, nothing might happen. Time to get lost in it all.

Every part of me longs for that moment. For the normality of it, for the familiarity, for the space to draw breath. For the teamsheet, a programme to flick through; for that cup of tea, for half-time lucky chocolate. For being able to raise my voice, whether in pride, celebration or just simple annoyance at a referee. For feet numbed by cold concrete, hands warmed by clapping. For coming home after a satisfying win. For coming home after an aggravating defeat or a mind-numbing nil-nil.

For the ritual, for the ceremony. For the blessed routine.

One day, it’ll be matchday again.